If you think the Grammys were just another glamorized orgy of music industry self-indulgence, catering to the tastes and interests of the 1% that owns them, well, then you’d be right. Mostly. But not entirely. There’s more to the story.
Over the last 40 years, there has been an epic battle for greater representation within the Grammy’s, to showcase the music of the people – roots music that emerges from our traditions and our movements. For many years, the Grammy’s have also been a platform to connect artists like these to the pop culture – given that the Grammys is one of the most important events in the music industry.
This battle recently entered a new phase.
This year’s Grammy Awards faced protest after 31 categories of music were ruthlessly cut by the producers of the event. And not just any categories. The fact that almost half of the categories that were cut were dominated by Latinos and other people of color is hard to ignore.
In the largest cuts in Grammy history, categories like Latin Jazz, Blues, Gospel, Zydeco, Cajun, Hawaiian, Polka, Native American, American roots music, and classical were slashed. Iconic artists like Etta James, who recently passed away on January 20th, received two of her last Grammy Awards in both the Traditional and Contemporary Blues categories, both of which were just eliminated.
The musical genrés targeted are not just ones that emerged from communities of color, but ones that were deeply linked to social movements that changed our society towards greater inclusion. Culture is what shapes who we are as a society—it’s this realm of art & storytelling where new identities are formed, and a deeper understanding of others can emerge. After the fight to enture that the music of communities of color is advanced, celebrated and recognized, we cannot allow it to once again be pushed to the margins. In a statement, Grammy-winner Carlos Santana, put it bluntly: “I think they’re racist. Period.”
There is another factor at work. Money. The increasing corporatization and consolidation within the music industry has meant privleging music that rakes in cash, rather than honoring music that exemplifies the highest in artistic acheivement. The cuts reflect the corporate music industry’s push to consolidate music under big umbrellas for the purposes of bigger profits.
The LA Times reported: “Some protesters see racial bias in the revisions, others see them as more economically based, still others consider the move a power play by corporate major labels against the smaller indie labels, whose artists often made up the nominees in the categories that have been eliminated or tucked under larger umbrellas.”
Jesse Jackson reported on these cuts in his radio show and explained, “these cuts occurred in mostly “ethnic categories” which are at the heart of the American experience. This decision has broad and devastating consequences, making it much harder for many talented artists to get attention for their work and the recognition they deserve.”
But really, should we care about the Grammy’s?
The protests around these cuts, begs the question: Should we place our faith in institutions that are run by the 1% and always will be?
A colleague and I got into a discussion about whether this battle was an important one. He argued that the Grammys are a ultra-commercial, ultra-corporate event that will never give a shit about being reflective of music that comes from the “roots” of this country.
My position was that this decision made by the Grammy’s ultimately will affect hundreds of thousands of musicians in these genres, which are genres that in their entirety, reflect the musical traditions of the 99%. And, as artists who believe that our work is labor, these cuts ultimately affect the economic viability of musicians in these fields.
My friend, fellow Oaklander, and Grammy nominated musician, John Santos, explained:
“Their decree direly affects tens if not hundreds of thousands of musicians, producers, record labels, CD manufacturers, graphic designers, music festivals and presenters, night clubs, music schools, radio programmers, fans, teachers and students of the eliminated categories. Grammy affiliation is arguably our country’s highest musical recognition… current and future generations will feel the economic and cultural repercussions of this action.
Marginalizing the musical expression of these communities in this way also carries deeper repercussions than the immediate economic hits. Kids and youth who have spent years studying these types of music and have been properly taught to see music with a broad perspective are now confronted with the further invalidation of non-commercial music, narrowing their appreciation and understanding of music…it is obviously devastating to teachers who have spent our lives trying to give students rich alternatives to the top 40 mentality spoon-fed to them via mass media at every moment.”
In short, this is the music of the majority! And so my colleague and I agreed in the end: While we fight for our music rights and against the attacks on culture, we should also be building alternative spaces and institutions that reflect the vision of the type of culture we want to build. For example, as part of the protest at the Grammy’s, organizers pulled together a “Not Those Awards All-Star Latin Jazz Jam & Concert” that featured the same genre’s eliminated by the Grammy cuts, thereby creating a community space where this music was celebrated and embraced.
The role of visual artists in this fight
I want to take a moment to talk about the important role that visual graphics played in this campaign, given that I’m a visual artist myself. In my role as co-founder at Presente.org, a national online organization that exists to amplify the political power of Latinos, my primary role was to help develop a plan that would get thousands of petitions protesting the Grammy cuts. With the help of Presente, the original organizers at GrammyWatch.org incrased their petitions from 6,000 to more than 23,000. We also helped bring major visibility to the campaign.
In planning out the ground protest for the Grammy event and the delivery of the petitions, we knew we needed strong visuals and incos to get the attention of the media. As my friend, Gan Golan says, “A person with a sign is worth 10 people without.”
Fellow artivist, Julio Salgado and I, developed signage that symbolized the Grammy’s “whitening”, and the graphic made it into the LA Times, Hollywood’s iconic corporate outlet (see below). Not to mention, the signs helped unite the group of protestors at the event itself.